Allison Pujol: The United States' complicity in Bahrain's human rights abuses

Monday, September 30, 2019 - 2:44pm

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While the United States has stated its commitment to the advancement of human rights abroad for decades, the historical record often indicates otherwise. Nearly a year ago, the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia (which is widely believed to be the result of a Saudi-led operation) sparked plenty of political conversation about the United States’s foreign policy relationships with human rights violators. In particular, much has been written about the United States’s desire to continue providing military technology to and from Saudi Arabia in the wake of Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen. The Saudi-led effort in Yemen has resulted in the bombing of schoolbuses and hospitals as well as the deaths of thousands of civilians, and the conflict has been prolonged by U.S. weapons funneling into Middle Eastern countries. While there is a limited ceasefire as of less than a week ago, the road to peace still looks long. The war has led to widespread famine and disease outbreaks, and the attacks have displaced many Yemen civilians. 

However, little attention has been paid to another country that the United States continues to arm despite horrendous human rights abuses: Bahrain. Much like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is also arming belligerents in the Yemen civil war and using U.S. weapons to fight in the conflict. And much like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s domestic human rights record is anything but positive. 

The suppression of protests and free speech in Bahrain is a relatively new political development. During the Middle East’s wave of popular movements in the spring of 2011, protests for democratic reform in Bahrain were quickly crushed by the Bahrain Defense Forces (along with some Saudi Arabian intervention assistance) in a way that has proven to be efficient as well as brutal. Since the end of protests in Bahrain, thousands of demonstrators have been jailed and tortured. In the past two years, Bahrain’s government has embarked on an extensive campaign to crack down on political opposition. Alongside the recent increase in imprisonment of citizens for tweeting about abuse, Shi’a clerics have also been targeted and stripped of their nationality.

The United States is not the only country that has funded Bahrain’s human rights abuses. In 2018, a report from The Guardian alleged the British government was funding the torture and executions of dissidents in Bahrain. Human rights organizations have accused the British government of being opaque about the purpose of the U.K.’s foreign aid toward Bahrain, and a spokesman from the British Foreign Office admitted as much. 

While many suggest the United States should cease its current military and economic support for Bahrain’s campaign against protesters and dissidents, it would also be beneficial to stipulate future U.S. aid on ensuring that Bahrain take steps toward comprehensive human rights reform. Shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama had conditioned the sale of fighter jets to Bahrain on a set of “reform benchmarks” to address human rights abuses; Bahrain’s government ultimately refused to comply with Obama’s request with the confidence that the U.S. government would eventually cave and complete the sale anyways.

Sure enough, President Donald Trump’s administration has been more than eager to complete the sale despite “the Bahrainis taking even more steps backward … including the dissolution of yet another peaceful opposition party, restoring arrest powers to a domestic intelligence agency and legalizing the use of military courts for civilians,” according to the  Forum on Arms Trade. Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, argues that the Trump administration’s decision to lift the ban is indicative of the United States’s global arms sales strategy: “prioritization of short-term strategic objectives over long-term democratic governance.”

Trump’s administration and its proponents — much like the U.K.’s government — have argued that arms sales to Bahrain actually promote regional stability by allowing the United States to monitor Iran. While it’s true that U.S. arms sales allow the United States a geostrategic position in the region, that position is inherently destabilizing. Even the economic benefits of arms sales are underwhelming for the United States, as Trump has outsourced the United States’s production of the arms it sells. This, in turn, has minimized the number of U.S. jobs created by arms exports from the United States. 

In short, the United States’s decision to continue arms sales to Bahrain is exacerbating the crisis in Yemen as well as aiding a government that prioritizes political power over the lives of its own citizens. Absent pressure from the United States, weapon sales to Bahrain can only further entrench the authority and ability of Bahrain’s government to oppress its citizens. The United States should cease current arms sales to Bahrain and agree to resume sales only if Bahrain shows marked improvement in its treatment of citizens. 

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.